Into the Shade: Sarah’s story

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By Dawn

I had a chance to talk to Sarah about her physical transition just 8 weeks after her gender reassignment operation. She is 27 years old now, but already knew at the age of 19 that she wanted to go through with the physical transition, that is male to female. She just knew she needed to be a little more mature before making it happen, to give her time to ensure she was making the correct decision for herself. Ever since she was young, she could sense a form of tension between her inner experience, how she felt on the inside, and the biological body she was born with.

At the time, Sarah’s given-name was David, a male name, given at birth, and as such started noticing that the clothes given to “David” didn’t feel like a fit at all. It was like wearing clothes that didn’t feel right on her body. “I felt like I was wearing an outfit that didn’t quite fit wearing boys clothes. Like I could wear it, but it didn’t feel right.” Sarah recalls when she was still a young boy — from a biological perspective — her dad had brought home a bag of upcycled clothing. She was very much attracted to the female clothes and dressed up in them. She had this real sense of satisfaction when putting them on. Her dad, of a Middle Eastern culture, started taking photos for fun. But Sarah somehow felt really ashamed of these photos, and didn’t want to keep them. It was as if something much greater was being revealed that made her feel confused. She wasn’t quite ready for what it was telling her. Over many years this brought to light a much deeper and more subtle feeling of somehow being trapped in the body of the wrong gender.

As a child during Halloween, Sarah noticed how she really enjoyed dressing up as a woman. She loved playing with wigs and make-up. At first it was only for play. It came from a place of: “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to change my look!?” But it brought this deep satisfaction that Sarah simply couldn’t ignore. She looked at herself in the mirror, and something would just release. Something oddly felt “right”. The look resonated with her and she enjoyed how it made her feel.

But it was only during her make-up program in Vancouver  at the age of nineteen in 2010 where it became undeniable to her. Her teacher, who was also part of the make-up department for an international association for theatrical stage, called on Sarah to be part of a demonstration. She would direct Sarah to look straight into the mirror and every time she would, it would really sink in a little deeper. She was looking straight into the eyes of a woman. Then, her teacher spoke up to the class: “In terms of ‘drag culture’, you see, as she pointed to her face, Sarah isn’t too far off from looking female.” This prompted Sarah to call her mom, who she talked with every night, to tell her: “You know mom, how you always wanted to have a girl; and now you have, that girl is me.”

At first, her mom wasn’t quite sure how to take this. When Sarah moved back home, her mother found her a job in the school where she also worked. It was at this time that Sarah decided to start the Real Life Experience (R.L.E) meaning she started her social transition in the workplace. She started wearing make-up in public. She enjoyed wearing a wig. She started buying female clothes. And as much as her mother was supportive, it was also a little disconcerting for her to have her own child begin to transition to a woman and in her own work place. Sarah’s mom worried that people might start talking and judging her! Sarah’s mother was quite open and is supportive to this day, it was simply that she was the vice-principal of the school, which seemed at the time a little uncomfortable. But Sarah was full of resolve and was resilient. She consistently dressed and acted as a female. Over time, as she worked and studied in other environments, she continued as a female. For the most part, not many people seemed to mind or pay attention and not many comments were overheard.

Another important step on her path was during a Reiki session given by her cousin Erin in 2010. This energy session was a powerful moment that opened the door to self-acceptance. Up to that point, Sarah didn’t know if society or her family would accept her to finally come “home” to herself. Sarah acknowledges that it can be a really difficult thing for families to accept. When she would hear of other people’s stories and how they would be rejected by their families, the truth was that it worried her. “The reality check for me was, I was worried my family wouldn’t accept me.”

Sarah’s parents separated when she was six. Her father had come from a small Middle Eastern village. Her mother was Catholic. “ Sarah eventually learned not to be burdened by her father’s lectures and disapproval and just framed his views as coming from a really traditional background. He told her “Don’t follow your heart.” Subsequently that created a purpose for Sarah to follow her dreams of changing genders.

But Sarah didn’t give up on her father for that. Regardless of his lack of support, Sarah continues to reach out to him and to show understanding for his unique situation.

Sarah has this tremendous capacity to see people’s pain and, from a heart-place, reaches out to them, full of compassion. This was also true in the middle of post-op recovery with the other women at the gender reassignment recovery house. Sarah always knew when one of the girls was having a hard time, especially considering the life altering surgery they were experiencing together, with the tremendous stress and physical pain affecting them all. Even as Sarah was undergoing the transformation herself, she would always support someone else in need by being up for a heart-felt hug. Sarah feels like “Vulnerability is a Super Power”. And she truly nails it. Always sensitive and attentive to what is happening around her, what people are feeling and experiencing. She is continually ready to show support with a word of kindness. One of Sarah’s dear friends had once given her this piece of advice: “Put love into everything you do, because that will pull you through.” And this is how Sarah lives her life.

Sarah knows quite vividly what it means to pull through. “I understand why people are negative at times, but for me to survive, I have to think positively.”

 One of the challenges that Sarah was grappling with was the fact that she didn’t have many role models. “Now, it has become a media sensation, but back then, I knew only a few individuals who went through with the transition.” It was the insecurity that comes with being a pioneer. And at first, her family encouraged her simply to enjoy cross-dressing, doing the ‘drag gig’. But that didn’t feel like it was addressing the root of the problem. It wasn’t going far enough. It wasn’t just about entertainment, it was this deeper need for serenity, and this meant becoming a woman. Having a woman’s body. Having a vagina. Having female hormones. This was what she desired. She also knew that her body, as it was, didn’t accommodate her sexual preferences.

Sarah started hormones at the age of twenty-one, progressively cyclical levels of progesterone and estrogen in her body. “I won’t have a period but it has made my hips wider, my breasts larger and my skin softer! Everything is totally different.” She was finally accepted for surgery in 2018. Sarah and her mother along with her two aunties and eldest brother travelled to Montreal for the operation. Montreal is the only place in Canada where this surgery occurs. At the “Centre de Chirurgie de Changement de Sexe” she was greeted by a very supportive doctor who understood that for some people this operation is a “medical necessity” and affirmed that this was indeed the case for Sarah. The post-op recovery took place in a convalescent home called “l’Asclépiade”, which means the flower on which monarch butterflies attach themselves as they fan and unfold their wings after leaving the chrysalis. Sarah shares that after the operation, the staff won’t allow you to look at your vagina immediately. The patients must wait five days in order to let the inflammation settle down and to avoid any emotional shock. It also allows the patients to integrate all the fundamental changes that are happening to them. There is an understanding that this process is taxing on one’s psychological well-being. This involves a careful step-by-step procedure to reduce overwhelming feelings. Sarah felt held and supported the whole way through and was particularly moved by the feeling of sisterhood that was experienced among patients. Everyone was going through this together. It was very moving.

As we held our interview over Skype, Sarah was resting. She still had various self-care practices that she needed to do for her gender reassignment to adequately settle in. She had various devices she needed to insert to help the newly minted vagina form properly and help it dilate as it should. Despite the physical trauma, Sarah allowed herself time to heal and adjust to her new reality. She recalls it as being a vulnerable time in her life.

Regardless of this intense experience, Sarah recognizes: “I love my body, the transformation is extremely exciting to me. You know that you can transform your body. It feels like a futuristic thing to me. It took me years to get where I am. With this new medical knowledge and skill, it is pretty amazing that we can now allow people to align their inside and outside self. It allowed me to piece myself  both physically and emotionally back together.”  

When I asked Sarah if she had anything else to share, she gave me this last beautiful image: “Well, you know when you’ve been running a marathon, and you get close to the finish line, people are there on both sides of you, held behind a fence extending their hands out to you. And as you walk by them, you brush your hands against them. This is sort of what it feels like. Often you think you are alone, but really, there are always people on the sidelines rooting for you and proud of your courage.”